Evangelists of Democracy
Mini Teaser: Radicals of the democracy-promotion movement embody the very thing they are fighting against—a closed-minded conviction that they represent the one true path for all societies and thus possess a monopoly on social, ethical and political truth.
Such a comparison with missionary activity would be rejected by most contemporary democracy promoters, not least on the grounds that, as the mission statement of the NDI puts it on its website, the organization
does not presume to impose solutions on local partners. Nor does it believe that one democratic system can be replicated elsewhere. Rather, NDI shares experiences and offers a range of options, so that leaders and activists can select those practices and institutions that may work best in their own circumstances.
But there is something more than a little disingenuous about such an assertion. Indeed, it is somewhat reminiscent of the old Argentine joke about the dictator Juan Perón who, when informed about a particularly bitter and divisive political issue that was convulsing the country, observed that the rival groups, whatever their differences, were at least all Peronists. The NDI’s assertion that it holds no brief for any particular democratic system cannot be taken at face value. For either this means its leaders would accept a decision by a country to opt for a totalitarian regime such as China’s, in which case they are not in fact committed to promoting democracy, or they are saying that within the context of democratic capitalism, Western-style property rights and legal norms, and so on, they have no wish to take a stand on which variant is best suited for a particular country. In that case, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker’s line about the emotional range of Katherine Hepburn’s acting, they are open to the entire gamut of political possibilities . . . from A to B.
When the NDI says it is above politics, it really means party politics.1 But this amounts to making the claim that, while democracy may be the frame of politics, it is not political per se—a ludicrous claim in philosophical terms, however convenient.
IN ANY case, whether or not the advocates of democracy promotion within and outside of government recognize it, such claims to altruism ring hollow to many outside the United States. One of the most important trends of the past decade, largely unrecognized in Washington, is the renaissance of the strong state in countries of the Global South such as Rwanda, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka. In the 1980s and 1990s, freewheeling groups such as Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee could operate in many parts of the world almost entirely as they saw fit. But now, even in war zones and during refugee emergencies, local authorities largely have the upper hand. Thus, while Washington may complain that populist leaders such as Hugo Chávez or autocrats such as Vladimir Putin are resisting outside democracy-promotion efforts because such activities threaten their hold on power, the days are long gone when democracy promotion under Washington’s aegis enjoyed a tremendous amount of leeway.
The strongest example of this pushback occurred this September 19, when Russia ordered USAID to permanently halt all its operations and programs in the Russian Federation within ten days. The Putin regime’s justification for this de facto expulsion order, which appears to be the first of its kind in any major country, was, as the Russian foreign ministry’s statement put it, “because the work of the agency’s officials far from always responded to the stated goals of development and humanitarian cooperation. We are talking about attempts to influence political processes through its grants.”
The U.S. State Department’s outraged reaction to the news was a case study in the hypocrisy and confusion that have attended post–Cold War democracy promotion from the start. Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declared that the United States remained “committed to supporting democracy, human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia.” She added defiantly that Washington looked forward to “continuing our close cooperation with Russian non-governmental organizations.”
It is perfectly legitimate for the Obama administration to oppose the Putin government and to favor dissident groups like Memorial, the election-monitoring NGO Golos and other organizations that oppose the Putin regime. But it is absurd to pretend that, in doing so, Washington is not meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. Vladimir Putin may be everything his adversaries in the democratic Russian opposition say he is, but the fact that he is bad does not mean he is wrong. USAID has been funding groups that would like to see a different and more democratic government in the Kremlin. For Washington to express indignation that this dictatorship is not prepared to let America continue underwriting its enemies really tells you all you need to know about the self-delusional sense of arrogant entitlement that pervades the democracy-building project.
SOONER OR later, Washington will recognize that the global rules of the game have changed, just as it already recognizes its inability to exert much influence over whether China democratizes. But American policy makers aren’t likely to reconsider their commitment to democracy. For now, democracy-promotion advocates are largely circling the wagons. The ablest of them, such as the brilliant Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment, readily concede the setbacks that democracy promotion has suffered. But they believe it can continue to be tremendously effective even in today’s far more difficult environment. It remains to be seen if this is correct. But American policy makers should be asking a different question: whether the U.S. government’s commitment to democracy promotion still makes sense in terms of national interest. We will never know if George Soros was correct when he claimed that in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse, there existed the possibility to bring a universal open society into being. But it is clear that this moment, if it ever existed, is now past. In a world where history has emphatically not ended, where there are a number of competing economic models that will have to coexist and there is no global democratic consensus, why does democracy promotion remain a major foreign-policy priority for the United States?
During the Cold War, the utility of democracy promotion was clear: it was a weapon in that conflict. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, it was possible to believe a new world order curated by the United States might actually come into being. Then, pursuing democracy promotion was an entirely rational decision for policy makers, for it would have strengthened that world order. But now, when the new world order has turned out to be a chimera, why continue to pursue a policy configured for other times and other conditions? It is true that, historically, the United States has had a revolutionary conception of its role in the world. But particularly given its straitened circumstances, is it wise for the United States to pursue the missionary agenda it has pushed at particular times in the past? Again, consider the Russian Federation. In some parts of the world, U.S. and Russian interests are at odds; in other parts of the world, they have interests in common. Under these circumstances, what is the national-interest rationale for supporting the internal opposition to the Putin regime and insisting that whatever happens, this support will continue? There is a term for that project: regime change. And the fact that it is being undertaken through peaceful means rather than military expeditions changes nothing about the desired end state of the democracy-building project.
The Russian case is certainly going to be only the first of many. Understandably, the rise of China and the relative decline of the United States have unsettled the American policy establishment. And Washington has no experience dealing with successful pushback to its democracy-building ambitions and doubtless is scrambling to figure out what to do. In times of uncertainty, people’s first instinct often is to carry on as if nothing has changed. If Washington’s continued reliance on democracy promotion is an emblem of this, it would be entirely understandable. But this does not make it any less unwise.
David Rieff is the author of eight books, including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2003) and At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention (Simon & Schuster, 2005).
1 It is important to state here that in this sense, Republicans and Democrats in the United States, and Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and, most importantly, Eurocrats in Europe, are all small “l” liberals, whose disputes over democracy and human rights internationally, however bitterly engaged in, are more illustrations of Freud’s idea of the narcissism of small differences than they are of serious ideological conflict.
Image: iStockPhotoImage: Pullquote: Democracy promotion is a radical project of social and political transformation whose adherents will not or cannot acknowledge either the ideological or the revolutionary character of their enterprise.Essay Types: Essay